Political forecasters attempting to gauge the chances for a power shift in Congress are watching several key 2018 races across the country, including two in Kansas.
In the 3rd District, several Democrats are competing for the right to challenge four-term Republican Kevin Yoder, and in the 2nd District, a former Democratic candidate for governor hopes to claim an open seat.
Democrats challenging Yoder have the advantage of running in a district that Hillary Clinton carried over President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, albeit by a single percentage point.
Paul Davis, the former Democratic leader in the Kansas House, has what might prove to be a bigger advantage in the 2nd District, which covers roughly the eastern third of the state. He carried it by six points in his unsuccessful 2014 bid to unseat Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
That strong showing and the fact that at the end of the first reporting period Davis had raised more campaign cash than his Republican rivals combined suggests that he is capable of winning the seat, said University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller.
“Clearly Paul Davis showed that he could appeal to some of those right-leaning voters in 2014,” Miller said. “His challenge is to replicate that and really get back that center-to-right support that can carry him over.”
Davis, a partner in a Lawrence law firm, is hopeful but cautious.
“Obviously I wouldn’t be in the race if I didn’t believe we had a good opportunity to win,” Davis said. “I also know that I’m a Democrat in Kansas and things are never easy.”
If Davis can get by Kelly Standley, a small-business owner from St. Paul, in the primary, he plans to court independent and moderate Republican voters by pledging to cross the aisle to forge compromise solutions on health care, taxes, the environment and a host of other key issues.
“You know, we’ve got plenty of people on both sides of the aisle in Washington that are just sitting on the end of the political spectrum, just providing more and more noise,” Davis said. “What we need right now are people who are going to be Kansans and Americans first and not Democrats and Republicans.”
GOP field lacks big names
When Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins decided not to run for a sixth term, she expected that several high-profile Republicans would jump into the race to succeed her.
That didn’t happen.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach opted to run for governor instead. Attorney General Derek Schmidt considered a run but decided instead to seek re-election.
To ensure that the GOP fielded its best candidate, state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, from Leavenworth, was willing to defer to any number of higher-profile Republicans. But when none stepped forward he jumped into the 2nd District race, saying it was essential for Republicans to hang on to the seat to help thwart an attempt by Democrats to gain control of the U.S. House.
“Bernie and Hillary’s Democrats are desperate to retake Congress and resume their death march to socialism,” Fitzgerald said at his July campaign launch. “We cannot let that happen.”
Fitzgerald said if elected he would help President Donald Trump further his agenda for tax cuts, tougher border security and the rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations.
“The puddles in your backyard are no longer ‘waters of the United States’ to be regulated by the federal government,” he said, before also praising Trump’s decision to withdraw from what he called “the international climate scam.”
Five now in GOP field
Similarly, state Sen. Caryn Tyson, from Parker, highlighted her support for the Trump agenda when she joined the race in August.
“We need to embrace the president’s call to repeal and replace Obamacare, secure our borders and pass comprehensive tax reform to cut taxes,” Tyson said in her campaign announcement.
In a recent interview, Tyson, who manages a Linn County ranch with her husband, described herself as a “reasonable conservative,” which she defined as someone willing to engage in debate and compromise to get things done.
As she campaigns, Tyson said she has not detected any buyer’s remorse from 2nd District voters who supported Trump.
“A majority of people, I think, tend to take the attitude that they wish he wouldn’t tweet so much,” she said. “But they agree with the agenda that he campaigned on.”
State Rep. Kevin Jones, a former Green Beret from Wellsville, and Basehor City Councilman Vernon Fields and Topekan Matt Bevens round out the GOP field.
Former Kansas Commerce Secretary Antonio Soave recently withdrew from the race amid reports that Brownback fired him for, among other things, awarding state contracts to friends and business associates.
Race seen as competitive
Davis’ 2014 performance and his early fundraising prowess have put the 2nd District race on various watch lists. The seat is one of several that prognosticators believe Democrats could flip if there is a substantial midterm backlash against Trump.
Recently, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website run by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, adjusted its prediction on the Kansas 2nd District race, moving it from the “likely Republican” column to “Republican leaning.”
It’s a slight change, but one that signals that campaign watchers expect the race to be competitive, said KU’s Miller.
“I don’t think that either side has a clear leg up,” Miller said. “The strengths of Paul Davis versus the Republican tilt of the district — we don’t really know how that will come out.”
Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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